Pool boys and reduction: how to understand spoken American English

Sordid tryst followed sordid tryst. Then there was some phonology. Want to understand what “gonna” means? Read on.

Some years ago, a beautiful summer afternoon found a much younger and cuter me at a picnic, chatting with a new acquaintance.  We quickly switched from English (my native language) to Spanish (not my native language), at which point he began telling me, in great detail, about what a slut his wife was.  Story of sordid tryst followed story of sordid twist–she even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…  

Linguists often split words into two categories: content words and function words.  Content words are words that you could think of as having a fixed meaning–nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for the most part.  In contrast, function words tell you things about grammatical and semantic connections–the, to, not–and include words without fixed meanings.  That means pronouns–I, we, she…

In languages that have stress, function words are often unstressed.  That makes them more likely to be misunderstood, or not to be understood at all.  It’s sometimes a problem even for native speakers of such languages, and it can be a really big problem for non-native speakers.  This lesson was brought home to me in a big way when I realized that I’d been confusing the pronouns that my interlocutor was using in our Spanish-language conversation.  He wasn’t telling me what a slut his wife was–he was telling me what a slut he was.  I even fucked one of the pool boys on our honeymoon…

This loss of distinctiveness of pronouns (and other function words) is an example of a process called reduction, which leads to things having a range of ways that they could be pronounced, some of which are less distinct than others.  Reduction processes are rampant in spoken American English, and they can make the language pretty difficult to understand if you’re not a native speaker.  I’m trying my hand at putting some videos together that aim to help people learn to understand these reductions.  You can find the second one, on the topic of the reduction of going to to gonna, at the link below.  If you’re as mystified by spoken American English as I am by spoken French, check it out–I’d love to have feedback on what does and doesn’t work, whether that be here on this blog, or in the Comments section on YouTube.  Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the whole subtitle thing, and I’d like to know to what extent that does or doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the video.  Any input at all would be appreciated, though!

Want to know more about reduction in American English?  Check out my video on the pronunciation of “let me” as “lemme:”

Achtung Baby

The history of scientific publication suggests that Trump’s travel ban could reduce the use of English as a scientific language. Here’s how it would happen.

I took organic chemistry in the 1980s.  Our very American professor enjoyed throwing the occasional German terminology at us.  What? You don’t speak German??, he would tease us.

It actually wasn’t that far-fetched of an idea.  (Far-fetched explained in the English notes below.)  Germany was a powerhouse in the early development of the science of chemistry, and German was the language of publication of a significant amount of the chemical research literature for a large chunk of the 20th century (and even more in the 19th).  Doctoral programs have traditionally required the demonstration of a certain amount of foreign language proficiency, and it wouldn’t have made much sense for our professor not to have studied German as one of his foreign languages while getting his PhD.

Today, German is not a player in the world of scientific language.  A lot of things contributed to that outcome.  Its decline started during the First World War; its use as a language of scientific publication picked up in the inter-war period, and it actually wasn’t much affected during the period of the Second World War, but it slowly dropped off after that, with English picking up all of the slack.

As Michael Gordin explains it in his surprisingly interesting Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before And After Global English, of the changes that the Second World War brought to the status of German as a scientific language:

…the most immediate and perhaps the one with the longest-lasting consequences [was] the rupture of the graduate student and postdoctoral exchange networks….One of the most salient indications of the importance of German science [before the war] was the centrality of German universities as the destination of choice for foreign students…. Travel by scientists to and from Hitler’s Germany became much harder.

Gordin describes the outcome of all of this disruption of scientific communication from the older generation to the students:  These networks [of collaboration and exchange of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows] did not reassemble until after the war, and they reassembled with the United States as the hub.  The decline of German as a language of science was not fast–but, it was complete.  In 1920, just under 45% of scientific publications were in German.  By 1970, that number had dropped to 10%.  In the 1980s, when my organic chemistry professor was teasing us for not speaking German, it was the language of publication of under 5% of scientific journal articles.  As of 2005, it was barely above zero.

Fast-forward to 2017, and Trump keeps trying to make good on his campaign resolution to do the most un-American thing imaginable–to keep people out of the United States on the basis of their religion.  (Muslims, at the moment, but it could just as well be Catholics, or Jews, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons, or Hindus, or…)  The effects of this have been far-reaching, on every level from the very personal (say, my friend’s father–he’s a green card holder, and the United States is his home, but he went back to Iran to visit family and was not allowed to board his plane back to the US) to the macroeconomic level (reasonable estimates of job losses if he manages to get his unconstitutional crap past the judicial system range from just over 50,000 to just over 130,000–see here for a nice analysis).

Screenshot 2017-05-15 06.44.36
Change in average number of authors per paper in a typical computational linguistics conference. What you should notice: the average number of authors has always been more than one.  Source: Mariani, Joseph, Patrick Paroubek, Gil Francopoulo, and Olivier Hamon. “Rediscovering 15 years of discoveries in language resources and evaluation: The LREC anthology analysis.” In Proceedings of LREC, pp. 26-31. 2014.

In my little corner of the world–scientific research–the effect has been to call into question the ability of Americans to have international collaborations.  Here’s the thing about my field–computational linguistics, which in the case of myself and my colleagues, we use to do things like predict epilepsy surgery candidates, find targeted cancer therapies, and understand suicidality: nobody works alone.  There are almost no “single-author” papers in our field–that is, research work that’s published by just one person.  Here’s some data from a study on publication patterns by Joseph Mariani et al. of the Laboratoire d’Informatique pour la Mécanique et les Sciences de l’Ingénieur:

[T]he number of papers with a single author was 11% in 1998 and went down to 3% in 2012, while the number of papers with 3 authors or more was 70% in 1998 and went up to 82% in 2012. This clearly demonstrates the change on the way research is conducted, going progressively from individual research investigations to large projects conducted within teams or in collaboration within consortia, often in international projects and programs.

This is why you’re reading blog posts that I write from all over the world: I travel so much because I work with people everywhere.  At the bottom of this post, there’s a list of the countries of origin of the people with whom I have current, ongoing collaborations: there are 25 of them.  (That’s 25 countries, not 25 people.)  That’s not an unusual number–that’s just how science happens these days.  And that’s a good thing: there’s lots of reasons to think that the more people are involved in a research project, the better the quality of the research will be.  It’s not a too-many-cooks kind of thing.

So, what does Trump’s travel ban mean for science?  It’s a big, fat problem.  Part of why I am a very productive researcher–over 100 publications to date, and a system in use in a neurology clinic right at this moment–is that I can freely bop around the world to work with people, and they can freely bop around the world to work with me.  Seulement voilà, the thing is: even while it’s being held up in the courts, the Molester in Chief’s attempts to ban travel are choking scientific collaboration.  People think twice about coming to the US these days, and people in the US think twice about leaving for fear that they won’t be able to get back in.  My last post talked about the specifics of how just one little linguistics conference is trying to cope with the issue; for a broader perspective, here are some news stories on the topic:

Where can this lead?  As Kevin Murnane recently put it in Forbes:

Science will not wither and die because Donald Trump preaches fear and his response to fear is to pick up the welcome mat, lock the doors and windows and hide inside.  What may fade, however, is the position the US has long held as a world leader in science as scientists from all fields look to other countries where freedom of thought and the free exchange of ideas is not curtailed….

Kevin Murnane, “Trump’s travel ban threatens to turn the US into an international scientific pariah,” Forbes.com

Atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki.  We built one, Germany didn’t; we won the war (although we certainly didn’t drop it on them).  Picture source: By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. – http://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/photos/images/ww2-163.jpg National Archives image (208-N-43888), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56719

One of my colleagues, a major figure in computational linguistics for some years, put it more succinctly: I’ve said for decades that U.S. world academic leadership was only thanks to the effect of WWII on Europe, and was not guaranteed to last.  This is the opposite of what Trump promised to do–“make America great again.”

The title of this post, Achtung Baby, comes from the U2 album of the same name.  Personally, I don’t use the term “Nazi” to refer to Trump–I reserve “Nazi” for people who are willing to put children in gas chambers.  Nonetheless: ignoring the similarities between the damage that Trump is trying to do to English-language science and the damage that the Nazis did to German-language science would just be stupid.  Below you’ll find English notes, and for thoroughness, a list of the countries of origin of the scientists with whom I, personally, have collaborations, just to show you what the scale of the matter is.

English notes

to be far-fetched: to be not very believable, or to be not very likely to be true.  Some examples:

  • Although they have been successful in preclinical and clinical partial regeneration of dental tissues, whole-tooth engineering still seems to be far-fetched, unless certain shortcomings are addressed.  Source: Recent advancements in regenerative dentistryby P. Amrollahi et al.
  • It has been revealed that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) express some of the nicotinic receptor subunits. Moreover, the crosstalk between MSCs and neutrophils is not far-fetched. Therefore, the aim of the present study is to determine the role of nicotine on the effects of MSCs on neutrophils.  Source: Nicotine can modulate the effects of the mesenchymal stem cells on neutrophils, by S. Pourtayeb and S.M. Abtahi-Froushani.
  • The need for equipping healthcare security officers with tourniquets may seem far-fetched, but it is not, according to the author, because such officers in their role of first responders may well face situations where they have to administer such first aid to save lives and limbs.  Source: Tourniquet use by security officers, by T. Naito.

Just to give you an illustration of how large of a role international collaboration plays in how science is done today, here’s a list of the countries of origin of scientists with whom I, personally, have collaborations, many of them going back years.  For context: I am a US citizen on the faculty of an American medical school.

  1. Albania
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. Austria
  5. Belgium
  6. Bulgaria
  7. China
  8. Denmark
  9. Ethiopia
  10. France
  11. Germany
  12. Greece
  13. India
  14. Italy
  15. Japan
  16. Korea
  17. Nigeria
  18. Poland
  19. Romania
  20. Russia
  21. Spain
  22. Switzerland
  23. Tunisia
  24. Turkey
  25. United Kingdom



Just one little linguistics conference

Trump’s un-American attempts to block immigration on the basis of religion have far more effects than might be obvious. Here’s one of them.

HPSG representation of the English verb “walks”, as in “she walks”. Picture source: https://goo.gl/YRKyzJ

In the constant buzz of news about Trump’s various and sundry evils, with their implications for the entire world–Syria, Korea, China, Russia–it’s easy to lose track of the fact that all of this crap has implications for the daily lives of millions of individuals, in ways both large and small.  I came across the email that you’ll see below today while cleaning out my email inbox.  Sent in February of this year, it’s a letter from the organizers of a scientific meeting that will take place in the US this summer.  HPSG is Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, an approach to modelling syntax that’s popular amongst computational linguists.  In one of those small-world things, I took my second semester of syntax from Carl Pollard, one of its creators.  He gave me an A-, which was much higher than I deserved.  Along with my grade, I got a little note, which read as follows: You were willing to ask the questions that everyone else was afraid to ask.  (Don’t get excited–my questions were primarily along the lines of What does X mean?)      

Not being sure whether or not you’ll be allowed into the country to attend an academic conference is not nearly as bad as, say, the situation of a green-card-holding Persian friend of mine who went to the airport in Tehran the day that the first executive order was signed–and wasn’t allowed to come home to the United States.  But, you heard stories like his on the news.  Here’s a view of the crappy situation that you might not have run into.  This is just one little linguistics conference–multiply it by…multiply it by a lot, and you get a view of just one of the effects of Trump’s un-American immigration-related crap.  Obscure vocabulary items explained in the English and French notes below.

Dear HPSG Colleagues,

As you are probably aware, towards the end of January the US President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order which sought to suspend entry to the United States for all refugees for 120 days; to bar Syrian refugees entirely; and to block entry to the United States to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for a period of 90 days. This order has been widely condemned by academic and scientific bodies, including the Linguistics Society of America (LSA, see below), and the constitutional legitimacy of this order been challenged in the courts. It is not clear what the outcome of this challenge will be.

This is directly relevant to this community because the 24th annual HPSG conference is scheduled to take place at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, in the USA (between 7-9 of July).

The main implications for this community are: first that scholars and researchers from the affected countries may not be able to attend the conference; and second that scholars and researchers from countries not directly affected by the executive order may withdraw from the conference as a form of protest against it, and in solidarity with those who will be affected by it (e.g. by not submitting papers, not attending the conference, refusing to serve on the Programme Committee, declining invitations to be guest speakers).

Given this, the Standing Committee (whose primary task “is to see that the yearly conference is organized, preferably at accessible places”) have been discussing whether the location of the conference should be changed to somewhere outside the USA.

After considerable thought, and consultation with the Local Organizer, we have decided that it should not be changed. One reason is that simply moving the conference would not avoid the problems that the executive order raises (e.g. it will prevent citizens of the affected countries who are US residents from leaving the US, because they will not be certain of their right to re-enter the US).

We appreciate that this decision will be contentious, as would the decision to move the conference, because it raises the issue of how one should respond as an individual or an academic to the actions of governments that can be seen as violations of human rights and which have the effect of inhibiting open international dialog and which are therefore damaging to the whole scientific enterprise. Questions about whether one’s opposition should take the form of continuing to engage constructively, or of boycotting? Which is more likely to be effective in a particular case such as this?

These are questions for individuals, and we think it is unlikely that a consensus will be possible, even in a community such as this. We absolutely respect the right of individuals to respond to this situation as they see fit (e.g. by refusing to serve on the Program Committee, refusing to attend, etc.).

From a practical point of view, we will be exploring the possibility of providing remote access for any potential attendees who are unable to attend in person because of this ban.

Best wishes,

Nurit Melnik
Chair, HPSG Standing Committee

English notes

contentious: “causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial” (the definition returned by Google–I don’t know the source)

How it appeared in the post: We appreciate that this decision will be contentious, as would the decision to move the conference, because it raises the issue of how one should respond as an individual or an academic to the actions of governments that can be seen as violations of human rights and which have the effect of inhibiting open international dialog and which are therefore damaging to the whole scientific enterprise.

French notes

contesté ou controversé: potential translations for “contentious” (from WordReference.com)

Microchips and lexical semantics

When’s the last time you saw a dog shoot a bunch of kids at a grade school, or post a video of someone beheading someone else on Twitter, or vote for Trump?

I’m not necessarily that crazy about people, but I like animals.  (Except for man-eating rabbits–I hate man-eating rabbits.)  Seriously, when was the last time you saw a dog or a cat sell a teen-ager drugs, or kill a bunch of kids at a grade school (yes, this happened in the US), or vote for Trump (that happens in the US, too)?   Yes, my dog bit a couple people on the croupion when they walked into the house uninvited.  Yes, my cat once pooped in my favorite sandals.  But, rip off a tourist visiting from a foreign land?  Sell someone a counterfeit Beanie Baby on eBay?  Video someone beheading another living person in the name of God, and distribute it on Twitter? Only a human would do that.

Consequently, when I’m in the US, I carry a leash and a can of cat food in my car.  Dogs love cat food, and when I see an obvious runaway/lost dog trotting down the street, I pull over and offer him a whiff.  I can usually catch them, and I’ve gotten maybe 12 or 15 dogs back to their happy homes in the 20 years (almost) that I’ve been in my current town.

Picture source: https://goo.gl/EvXwQz

Something that makes this a hell of a lot easier is if people have had their animal microchipped.  In this context, a “microchip” is a little thing about the size of a grain of long-grain rice that a veterinarian injects under a dog or cat’s skin.  They don’t notice it in the least, as far as I can tell.  A veterinarian can wave a sort of wand over it, and it will send off a signal with an identifying number.  The vet sends the number to a company, the company sends back contact information from the owner, et voilà: Spot is home in time for dinner.  It’s quite wonderful, really.

This sign’s been around for a while.  I walk by it on my way to the train station after work.  The effort to get him back to his happy home will definitely be a lot easier than it would have been otherwise: Hector has been chipped.  Check out the poster, then scroll down, and let’s talk about how it’s interesting from a linguistic point of view.


The linguistically cool thing is at the bottom: Hector est Pucé.  What that means: Hector has been chipped.  Now, we know that that’s going to increase the chances of Hector making his way home, but it’s cool from a linguistic point of view, too.  Recall from this blog post that French has a class of verbs that relate to undoing some noxious state of infestation–dératiser (to exterminate the rats in something), dénicotiniser (to remove the nicotine from something), and the like.  The interesting thing that we noted about these verbs is that they share an odd set of characteristics:

  1. They all have an -is– added on to the end.
  2. They all describe the reversal of a state of affairs that a human could create, but wouldn’t be expected to.
  3. None of them has a corresponding verb for creating that state of affairs.  That is, there is no ratiser, nicotiniser, etc. (or that is the claim, at any rate–read the other blog post if you don’t agree).

Now, puce, the word that is being used for a microchip here (it’s also the word for the chip on your credit card), comes from puce, a flea.  There is a verb épucer, to deflea, which clearly doesn’t fit the pattern of the verbs about which we just talked.  And, here’s an example of pucer!  Certainly the meaning here is to microchip, not to infest with fleas–but, it’s worth a second look and a quick blog post anyway, right?

I hope these folks have found their rouquin, their ginger (in the sense of red-haired).   I’d like to think that he’s found his way home.  If not: I hope he’s happily shacked up with some girl cat somewhere.  It would have to be a purely platonic relationship–in addition to being pucé, he’s also been neutered–but, a lifelong flirtation can be pretty exciting in and of itself.  The French are pretty damn good at that, too.

Want to be amused/horrified by the stupidity of the world?  Go to Google Images, do a search for microchips, and check out some of the “mark of the Beast” stuff that comes up.


Cautiously optimistic

Graffiti that I saw on my way into a metro station this morning: “Neither Macron nor Le Pen means Le Pen.” Picture source: me.

A very good thing about France: the French don’t really do protest votes.  That’s not to say that we don’t have the ni-nis—those who say that they won’t vote ni for Macron, ni for Le Pen.  A ni-ni might abstain, or voter blanc–-submit a blank ballot.  But, it’s not exactly a common thing in France.  France has a two-round election process, with multiple candidates in the first round, and only the top two finishers in the second (except in the unlikely event where someone takes more than 50% in the first round.) People sometimes say that you vote the first round with your heart, and the second round with your head.

I would say that Americans vote 80% on emotion, and 20% on the basis of their takes on the candidates’ actual policies.  (I don’t except myself from that; “one’s take on something” explained in the English notes below.)  In contrast, I would guess that the French tend to vote 20% on emotion, and 80% on the basis of their takes on the candidates’ actual policies.  I know plenty of people who aren’t at all crazy about Macron’s proposals for the economy, but given a choice between someone about whom they’re not crazy and some Nazi sociopath, of course they’re going to vote for the guy about whom they’re not crazy.  The photo above–some graffiti that I saw as I walked into a metro station this morning–is representative of the opinion of everyone with whom I’ve talked: deciding not to vote for either of them is to vote for Le Pen.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

–W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

The worry of most of the people I know is that Macron is so far ahead of Le Pen in the polls that everyone will assume that he’s going to win, and too many people will decide that they don’t need to vote, and then the Le Pen voters all show up, and boum–Le Pen wins.

I was never really all that struck by Yeats’ poem The Second Coming when I was an English major in college.  We mostly contented ourselves with showing off our knowledge of what a gyre is, and moved on to Beowulf, or Salman Rushdie.  But, ever since Obama got elected and the Republican Party went insane over the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, The Second Coming has become more and more meaningful to me.  With Trump in office, it has gone past “meaningful” towards “frightening”–at the very least, foreboding.

The polls in France close in four hours.  We’ll see what happens.

The Second Coming

W. B. Yeats, 1919

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

English notes

One’s “take on” something is your opinion, or analysis of, it.  Note that this is entirely different from the verbal idiom to take something/someone on.  

  • I want to comment on Trump’s take on the Civil War and Andrew Jackson… but, seriously, it hurts me. READ A BOOK!  (Twitter) (Context: Trump recently said something about a former populist president, Andrew Jackson, that is consistent with either (a) Trump being an uneducated idiot who, in particular, doesn’t know anything about American history, or (b) Trump being a very bad person.)
  • Gr8, some sources just hav a screwed up set of priorities. Who cares about Trump’s take on med marijuana when the health care plan sucks?! (Twitter) (Context: the Republican-controlled House of Representatives just voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a disaster.)
  • Trump’s take on Andrew Jackson isn’t astonishing; what is astonishing is that this country elected an ignorant pussy-grabbing Richie Rich.  (Twitter)
  • My take on Trump is that he just wants to be liked by whoever is in front of him, which makes him inconsistent and unreliable.  (Twitter)
  • My take on Trump’s worse-than-worthless briefing to every senator on the North Korean problem.  (Twitter) (Context: here’s a link to the Tweeter’s article on Trump’s attempt to swing the Senate in his favor with respect to whatever crap he’s brewing concerning North Korea.)

How I used it in the post: I would say that Americans vote 80% on emotion, and 20% on the basis of their takes on the candidates’ actual policies.  


On the downside: I’m in Paris, it’s a quarter to 5 in the morning, I just ate a bag of low-fat popcorn and a stroopwafel that I squirreled away on the San Francisco to Roissy flight because there is no other food in my apartment, and I still can’t go to sleep because I still haven’t even started to write something for my Friday morning French lesson.

On the upside: I’m in Paris, it’s a quarter to 5 in the morning, I just ate a bag of low-fat popcorn and a stroopwafel that I squirreled away on the San Francisco to Roissy flight because there is no other food in my apartment, and I still can’t go to sleep because I still haven’t even started to write something for my Friday morning French lesson.  This is something that no human has ever experienced before.  I am LIVING, damn it!  

(Downside and upside explained in the English notes below.) What I have done since midnight instead of writing something for my Friday morning French lesson:

  1. Investigated the verbs of which the French noun le chapitre can be the subject
  2. Investigated the polysemous nature of the French noun le chapitre–did you know that it can mean something like “one’s say”?  I certainly didn’t…
  3. Learned some new vocabulary items–we all know that the consequence of Zipf’s Law, from the perspective of a second language learner, is that you will be running into new words every single day for the rest of your life… (barbu, biniou, goujon, sentinelle, avitaillé, dessaler, cheville (petite tige qui sert à fixer), pointu)
  4.  Started a blog post about the verbs of which le chapitre can be the subject–didn’t finish it
  5. Watched a video of a Patachou song about “la chose” (http://m.ina.fr/video/I07072974), felt guilty for laughing about something so juvenile, laughed anyway
  6. Made a video about what the American English word gonna means (check it out–feedback appreciated)
  7. Started a blog post about reviewing the Methods section of a research paper–didn’t finish it
  8. Watched a lot of French-language cat videos
  9. Wrote a blog post about frame semantics–finished it
  10. Watched way too many Têtes à claques videos (thanks, Courtney of Learn French Avec Moi–those little guys have brought so much happiness into my life!)
  11. Learned some more vocabulary (chronophage, de suite, détrompez-vous, mauvaises langues, encercler, ressasser, en étais resté là, partiels, relâchement, se ressaisir, se la péter, ça tombe bien, invocatrice, quête, case)

5:23 AM… Time to write something for my French lesson…  I wonder what verbs le chapitre can be the subject of…

On the downside/on the upside… The negative aspects of something (Merriam-Webster)/the positive aspects of something

  • On the downside I lost my Healthcare. On the upside, if I get sick, AR14s are still legal and I now have a roll call of where to use them (Twitter–for context, the Republicans in the House of Representatives just voted to do away with Obamacare today)
  • On the downside, i didn’t eat today. On the upside, i made a list of everything i need to do to get myself out of this fucked up situation.  (Twitter)
  • on the upside all my finals are on monday and then i’m done…on the downside ALL MY FINALS ARE ON MONDAY WTF (Twitter)
  • Downside: just voted for . Upside: We know whose political bones to grind to powder in #2018  (Twitter)
  • Downside to being an insomniac: No sleep Upside: I get to see a beautiful sunrise from my roof as the birds sing (Twitter)

Buying or selling, all money leads to Trump: frame-based semantics

How can “buy” and “sell” have similar meanings?

Hi Kevin Zipf,

I was going through Elisabetta’s book (the one I was supposed to return you on Friday and I forgot, sorry!), there is a sentence “Typical lexical structures are, for example: morphological word families, such as book, booking, booklet, bookstore, based on presence of the word book; semantic network such as buy, acquire, purchase, sell, negotiate, pay, own, based on meaning associations; and groups of words with similar syntactic behavior, for example nouns, verbs, or adjectives”.   I was wondering how “buy, acquire, purchase, sell, negotiate, pay, own” can be combined together in a single semantic network?  Semantic network consists of words with similar meanings, right? How can “buy” and “sell” have similar meanings?



Hi, P,

I LOVE it when you ask me questions like this!

In addition to their use in describing language, frames are useful in the broader context of cognitive science.  For more on how that works, see this post on the subject of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s framing-based explanation for Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party in 2016.

Regarding the specific example: this is what is called a “frame.”  The idea is that there are some things:
– two people
– an object
– a quantity of money
You can talk about the relationships between those from different perspectives:
John sold Mary a car for $5,000.
Mary bought a car from John for $5,000.
Mary paid John $5,000 for the car.
Picture source: Agarwal, Apoorv, Daniel Bauer, and Owen Rambow. “Using Frame Semantics in Natural Language Processing.” Proceedings of Frame Semantics in NLP: A Workshop in Honor of Chuck Fillmore. Vol. 1929. 2014.

If you think about “semantics” as being a mapping between language and a model of the world, then the model of the world is the same in the case of all three sentences, so in some sense, the meaning is the same in all three cases.  What’s different is whether we talk about it from the perspective of John (sell), Mary (buy), or the quantity of money (pay).  You could argue about whose perspectives these are, and perspective isn’t necessarily even the best word for this, but that’s the sense in which those are related.  To get the others in there, consider, for example, that selling is about a change in ownership; selling involves a previous negotiation between the same two people (John and Mary) concerning the price that will be paid for the car; etc.

Have a Happy Friday,
Kevin Zipf